Copper's David and Goliaths

If you've ever stood beneath Michelangelo's sculpture of David in Florence, you know that the commensurate underdog is anything but a pipsqueak. Taseko Mines (AMEX: TGB  ) , the micro-cap copper miner with larger-than-life mineral reserves, may see itself in a similar light.

Although true industry goliaths such as Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX  ) and diversified miner BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) won't discern a threat from the 19.1 million pounds of copper concentrate produced at Taseko's Gibraltar mine in the second quarter, this smaller operator with big plans will continue firing its slingshot. If outperforming shares are the key to slaying a goliath, Taseko may indeed have a serious shot at victory.

Taseko recorded a 200% increase in net earnings over the second quarter of 2008, but those results were heavily influenced by a foreign-exchange gain of $7.9 million (compared to a corresponding $600,000 loss in the prior-year period). Notwithstanding the impressive strength of copper's price recovery in recent months, the average realized price dropped 46% from the prior year, offsetting a 69% increase in copper concentrate sales volume.

When we look to mining costs, Taseko starts to increase in stature. The miner's operating cash costs, net of by-product credits, came in at just $0.96 per pound. Of course, goliath Southern Copper (NYSE: PCU  ) can more easily harness economies of scale to deliver a comparable cost of $0.51 per pound, but Taseko's margin strength remains a well-chiseled feature as Gibraltar moves closer to a giant capacity expansion.

Taseko's golden bullet
With less than 10% the production scale of Southern Copper, Taseko possesses a secret weapon to slay the competition. The pending Prosperity project, which Taseko is "extremely confident" will clear regulatory hurdles, offers not only 2 billion pounds of copper, but a large-scale gold reserve of 4.7 million ounces.

Whereas copper giant Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK  ) recently divested gold assets to the likes of Kinross Gold (NYSE: KGC  ) , Taseko retains a buried treasure that shareholders are eager to unearth. Taseko's smaller scale and financial constraints leave this Fool questioning whether it can build the mine on its own in a timely fashion, fueling speculation that Taseko may ultimately attract a buyer. I offered Yamana Gold (NYSE: AUY  ) as a potential suitor, but relative giants may flock to Taseko like visitors to Michelangelo's marble masterpiece.

Copper has been on a tear lately, reaching more than $2.80 per pound as China continues to build stockpiles, invest abroad, and foment commodity speculation. As a result, I perceive a near-term price correction on the horizon, with the potential for more favorable entry points ahead.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker is the commodore of copper and the Colonel Klink of zinc. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns shares of Freeport-McMoRan, Taseko Mines, and Yamana Gold. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is worth way more than $2.80 per pound.


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  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2009, at 10:58 PM, silverincite wrote:

    Nice if they bring in a partner to help build the mine, rather than have them raise the $800 million needed. Too bad for Teck's debt situation, it has gotten better but not to the point where I see them taking on new projects ( 5+ yr maturity debt vs. Oct.09 ).

    I agree that copper could see a correction after this awesome run and Taseko Mines (TSE:TKO) follows it more than any other metal to the extent that it seems it gets no value in the market for their gold at Prosperity. Maybe investors don't see the project getting through the environmental assessment due in Oct.09.

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